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Synthesis/Regeneration 38   (Fall 2005)


Fishing: The New Resource War

by Robert Ovetz

Until the mid-20th century, the ocean was a key watery terrain of conflict between competing states seeking to expand their control over territories and natural resources.

Today, the ocean is again a place of conflict. This time it is small-scale subsistence fishermen battling governments and industrial fishing companies for the declining and increasingly precious resource of fish. These battles, raging from Canada to Chile to Scotland to Taiwan, are the newest round of global resource wars.

In late 2004 a fish war broke out when Italian boats surrounded and shot out portholes of a Croatian fishing vessel. The armed assault was retribution for the Croatian government’s setting up a “no go” area for foreign vessels. The closure was intended to protect local subsistence vessels and conserve local fisheries.

The fish wars are flaring out of control across our planet. The Sri Lankan Navy has attacked Indian fishing vessels; strikes have rocked India; local subsistence fishermen in the Philippines protested the loss of their traditional access rights to foreign vessels; angry clashes have broken out in Chile and Taiwan; a mutiny hit Papua New Guinea; and Australia has seized and burned illegal fishing vessels.

Just below the surface, a cold war is emerging as well. Environmental, recreational and industrial fishing groups have filed countless lawsuits over fishing in the US, anger has erupted over the EU’s sweeping changes in its fisheries policies, and a trade war has erupted between the US and Thailand and Vietnam over the former’s higher tariffs on imported farmed shrimp.

What’s behind the fish wars? Increasing global demand, large subsidies, advancements in technology and inadequate regulation have led to the depletion of our fisheries. New developments in industrial fishing over the last few decades, supported by government tax breaks, have led to a rapid oversupply of super-sized vessels equipped with advanced fish-finding radars and sonars plying the ocean. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 70% of our global fisheries are now being fished close to, at or beyond their capacity.

What does this global collapse of our fisheries mean? Flush with subsidies, the growing global industrial fishing fleet is rapidly outstripping the supply of fish. Scientists recently warned that large predatory fish species such as shark and marlin have been depleted by as much as 99% in the past century.

This decline in marlin and other so-called billfish, a favorite among the lucrative recreational fishing community, has caused widespread panic among not only the fishers. Hotels, tour guides, charter boat, restaurant and travel companies, not to mention local governments hemorrhaging jobs and tax revenues, also benefit from a healthy sport fishing industry.

Recent studies have confirmed what many marine biologists have been saying for years: Fish feel pain, just as all animals do. PETA recently launched its Fish Empathy Project after a recent review in Fish and Fisheries cited more than 500 research papers on fish intelligence, proving that fish are smart and sensitive, that they can use tools and communicate with each other, and that they possess impressive long-term memories and sophisticated social structures.

According to University of Edinburgh biologist Culum Brown, “Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates, including nonhuman primates.” This year New Scientist reported, “The structure of the fish brain is varied and rather different from ours, but it functions in a very similar way.” And Dr. Sylvia Earle, perhaps the foremost marine biologist in the world, explained, “I wouldn’t eat a grouper any more than I’d eat a cocker spaniel. They’re so good-natured, so curious. You know, fish really are sensitive, they have personalities, they hurt when they’re wounded.” For more information, visit PETA’s Fish Empathy Project Web site, FishingHurts.com.

The most significant cause of the decline of sharks and marlin is industrial longline fishing. “Dirty” fishing gear like longlines, monofilament lines stretching up to 60 miles and baited with thousands of hooks, catch and kill large numbers of non-target catch. Most of the world’s longline vessels originate from Taiwan and Japan although dozens of other countries, including the US, have much smaller fleets.

Longline fishing for tuna and swordfish just doesn’t come close to recreational angling when it comes to generating cash. According to the US government, in the late 1990s in Hawai’i industrial longline fishing generated $47.4 million compared to recreational fishing’s trip-related expenditures ranging from $130–$347 million.

Scientists warn that the rapid decline of top-of-the-food-chain species such as tuna, shark and billfish may have far reaching consequences for the ocean ecosystem. With these predators out of the way, new species such as stingrays are moving into their niches causing a wide range of unforeseen problems. In addition to a significant decline in population, the actual size of fish caught has declined by more than 50%.

“Dirty” fishing gear like longlines, monofilament lines stretching up to 60 miles and baited with thousands of hooks, catch and kill large numbers of non-target catch.

The first to suffer the consequences are ocean wildlife and local subsistence fishermen. A recent report estimates that longlines catch and kill an estimated 4.4 million sharks, sea turtles, seabirds, billfish and marine mammals in the Pacific each year. Scientists warn that the endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle, often caught on longlines, could go extinct in the next 5–30 years unless the threat of longlines is reversed.

Environmentalists and small-scale fishing people have responded with protests, lawsuits and extensive campaigns for reform.

Pressed for export revenues to repay mounting debts, developing countries push local subsistence fishing communities out of waters that have sustained their families and local communities for centuries. Access to these waters is then leased to foreign industrial vessels that rapidly deplete the fisheries and move on.

In the race for the last fish, industrialized nations are subsidizing access to the $2 billion annual tuna market for their fleets in the territorial waters of developing nations. While the EU spends as much as $1 billion per year on fishing subsidies, annual subsidies for industrial fishing are estimated to be as much as $50 billion worldwide.

In exchange, small island nations in the South Pacific have signed access agreements giving them 2–5.5% of revenue, worth only about $60 million a year. Since nearly all the tuna from the region is exported to the EU, US and Japan, there are few economic spin-offs to the local economies.

Rather, the costs are staggering. As Jean Ziegler, a UN expert on the right to food, said in a recent report to the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights, “In the drive to industrialize, privatize and orient fish production towards exports, poor fishing and fish-farming communities are often left behind.”

The consequences are not surprising. Job losses are mounting among coastal fishing communities already hit hard by erosion and climate change. In Fiji, tuna canneries find themselves laying off workers and shortening the workweek due to a lack of supply in tuna.

The bitter irony is that these subsidies are not directed towards helping these developing nations set up and run their own sustainable fisheries so that they can continue fishing long into the future. Rather, this money is underwriting a new race for the last fish, plagued with the intrigue of scandals, bribes and corruption.

As foreign vessels export fish once destined for local markets, local prices have shot up at the same time quality has declined. Local communities in the Philippines and Kiribati have reported significant declines in local supply and quality.

The declining supply of fish and the sale of traditional fishing grounds to the highest bidder are stripping small fishermen of their livelihood. Unlike past fish wars that pitted colonial powers against one another for a cheap food source, the new fish wars are being fought over the ability to feed one’s family and maintain a way of life crucial to their communities.

Faced with calls for moratoriums on destructive fishing such as industrial longlines, the UN has called for prohibitions of destructive fishing techniques. Let’s hope the UN and its member nations will do more than talk. The survival of the ocean and the people that depend on it is at risk.

A new report, “The Bottom Line: Saving Sea Turtles is Good for the Economy,” published by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, has found that industrial longline fishing in the Pacific not only causes extensive damage to the marine ecosystem but has pervasive negative cultural, economic and social consequences for coastal fishing and fish-consuming communities. Implementing a moratorium on industrial longlining and creating a network of Marine Protected Areas on the high seas of the Pacific would be a boon to local coastal economies.

“Industrial longline fishing is a loss-loss situation not only for sea turtles but also those who rely on the ocean for their food and livelihood,” says Robert Ovetz, author of the report. “Creating a network of Marine Protected Areas would reverse the damage to local fisheries, indigenous peoples, tourism and food security inflicted by industrial longline fishing.”

The report comes at the time when 705 international scientists from 83 nations and 230 non-governmental organizations from 54 countries have called on the United Nations to implement a moratorium on industrial longline fishing in the Pacific.

Released during the meeting of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries in Italy 7–11 March, the report gives additional momentum to new guidelines under consideration to allow time and area closures of destructive fishing practices that threaten critically endangered sea turtles.

“Closing areas of the ocean off from industrial fishing is good for fisheries and turtles,” Ovetz added. Recent studies have demonstrated that Marine Protected Areas not only protect threatened marine species but are also extremely successful at restoring depleted fisheries.

One of the biggest problems with industrial longlining is that it removes fish from local markets and exports them abroad. MPAs would reverse this drain of resources from the developing world. As Ovetz explains, “MPAs are crucial for generating job growth by preserving the very habitats and species that draw visitors to their shores.”

Robert Ovetz, PhD, is the Save the Leatherback Campaign Coordinator with the US-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project which is calling for a moratorium on industrial longline fishing in the Pacific. He can be reached at robert@seaturtles.org

[6 aug 05]

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